By Ray Hamill — The most anticipated game of the weekend will take place at Ferndale High on Saturday afternoon, when the Wildcats welcome the Fortuna Huskies to Coach Carlson Field for the annual Milk Can game.
The showdown between the two neighboring rivals is usually one of the most anticipated games on the sporting calendar here on the North Coast, and it should be even more so this year after all the uncertainty of the past 12 months.
“It’s always special,” Fortuna head coach Mike Benbow said. “But I think under the circumstances there’s a new appreciation of it.”
Ferndale head coach Clint McClurg echoed the sentiment.
“If we were fortunate enough to play one game this year, let’s be honest, this is the one that needed to be played,” he said. “And we’re thankful and appreciative we get the opportunity to go for the Can.”
It should also be a good matchup, between two of the best teams in the H-DNL right now, and two teams that are coming off impressive wins in their opening games a week ago.
Ferndale kicked things off with a 12-0 win at St. Bernard’s, the program’s first over the Crusaders in almost eight years.
It was a strong performance from the physical Wildcats, who paved the way to victory in the trenches and with the play of senior linebacker Lane Branstetter, who was the player of the game and one of this week’s Humboldt Sports Athletes of the Week.
But it was the play of the defensive backfield that impressed the head coach just as much.
Three players in particular — Javier Lopez, Garrett Christiansen and Emmitt Albee — did an exceptional job with their open-field tackling and coverage against a usually high-octane and very dangerous Crusaders pass attack.
Especially so considering Christiansen and Albee are really known for other sports and have just limited football experience.
“I was very pleased with so many things, but I really feel our secondary doesn’t get enough credit,” he said, adding that Lopez is the leader of the unit. “Being able to pick up the concept of what we’re trying to do, those three did a great job.”
The Huskies, meanwhile, are also coming off an impressive win in their opener, when they got the better of the Panthers 54-18 at McKinleyville.
With their senior leaders paving the way, the Huskies stormed out to a 40-0 lead early in the second quarter in a dominating display.
Quarterback Max Hough, receiver Branson Gans and lineman Joe Quen, among others, all started the season as expected, and the Huskies will carry a ton of momentum and confidence into Saturday’s big game.
And preparations, according to the head coach, have been going well.
“We’ve had a good week of practice and all our kids have been pretty excited about the game,” Benbow said. “What’s not to be pumped about. I know a lot of grandparents and parents who played in this game. It’s something special.”
“They were in a battle last week and they looked very good,” the Fortuna head coach said. “They’ve got a lot of seniors and Coach McClurg and his coaches do a great job. They’ll have them ready to play.”
McClurg is also expecting a battle from a Huskies program and coaching staff that is among the best on the North Coast.
“They look like a pretty cohesive group,” McClurg said. “For a group of players that is in week four now, they’re pretty cohesive, and they have size up front, and obviously they have athleticism where they need it. They have a very balanced attack.”
Influential Ferndale running back/linebacker DJ Albee is a doubt for Saturday’s game, and if he is unable to go Cayden Collings is expected to pick up the slack on offense and Jack Westfahl is expected to fill the gap on defense, although McClurg says “you can’t replace DJ, someone who makes plays like that.”
McClurg also had words of praise for lineman Bryce Bell for his play on the defensive side of the ball in last week’s shutout.
“His play up front just really, really was impressive,” the head coach said.
Saturday’s game is set for 1 p.m. and will be broadcast on Mix 95.1 FM, as well as streamed through the Fortuna football boosters Facebook page.
There will be no JV game.